Throughout its history, the Olympic games have produced many heroes and provided a great deal of enjoyment and excitement, for example, the US hockey teams of 1960 and 1980, Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals in 1972, and Michael Phelps’ 19 gold medals over the last five Olympiads, to name a few. But, unfortunately there have been many lowlights as well. There have been instances of violence (1972 and 1996), prejudice (1936), boycotts, and cancellations (1916, 1940, 1944, 1980 and 1984). I am sure you can think of other instances, but, in the interests of time and space, I will only profile the aforementioned.
These Games were held in the shadow of Nazism and the threat of war. Berlin had won the bid to host them in 1931 before Hitler’s rise to power, but as the date approached and the violence and prejudices of the Nazis became increasingly apparent, a movement to boycott the Games or move them to another venue arose. But, the Nazis went “all out” to remain the host. They viewed the Games as an opportunity to show off their country’s progress and promote their concept of Aryan supremacy. They gave assurances that they would permit German Jews to compete; they toned down their anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence in an effort to hide their true colors; and, most of all, they wooed international and US Olympic officials – hard. One of Germany’s chief advocates was none other than Avery Brundage, the USOC president, who opined famously that “politics has no place in sport.” He insisted that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly in Germany and blamed the boycott sentiment on a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.” Once the US formally accepted its invitation, all talk of a change of venue or boycott vanished.
Prejudice reared its ugly head in the track competition. First, Nazi officials were embarrassed and none too pleased when Jesse Owens, an African American, won gold in the 100 meter, 200 meter and broad jump. Hitler appeared to snub Owens after the award ceremonies, by not making himself available to congratulate him as he did other winners, although some accounts dispute that. (As a footnote, the silver medalist in the 200 was Mack Robinson, brother of Jackie.)
More significantly, the US men’s track coaches removed two Jewish sprinters, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, from the 4X100 relay, replacing them with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, at the last minute. They had earned their slots on merit and their replacement was a huge shock. The US relay team was a virtual “lock” to win gold. Coincidentally, they were the only two Jews on the Olympic team. Many, if not most, observers concluded the obvious – that the coaches had replaced them, perhaps, under the influence of Brundage, to placate Hitler so he would not be further “embarrassed” by the presence of two Jews on the medal stand, although this has never been proven. In any event, Glickman and Stoller did not compete, and the US did win gold.
Glickman and Stoller went on to live productive lives. Glickman became a hall-of-fame broadcaster. He mentored many younger sportscasters, such as Marv Albert and Bob Costas. He is best known in the NY area for his long-time broadcasting of NY Giants Jets and Knicks games. As Knicks announcer he coined the terms “swish” to describe a shot that would go in without touching the rim or backboard, and “good like Nedicks,” in recognition of a Knicks’ sponsor. Stoller returned to college where he became an All-American track star. Later, he acted and sang in films. Both men adamantly insisted their removal from the relay was due to anti-Semitism on the part of Brundage and other US Olympic officials. Stoller called the incident “the most humiliating episode” [of his life.] In 1998 the USOC presented Glickman with a plaque in lieu of the gold medal. Stoller had died in 1983.
These were the first games to employ a torch relay to transport the Olympic Torch from Olympia, Greece to the host site. In addition, it was the first to be televised. Also, Hitler commissioned a filmmaker to record the action for posterity.
Unfortunately, these games have been and will be forever stained by the Owens-Glickman-Stoller incidents. Three years later, the world was at war.
The terrorism in this Olympics marked the end of innocence with respect to these Games. Up until this time, the Games had always been mostly characterized by friendship and sportsmanship. Sure, there had been isolated instances of conflict, prejudice, and cold war intrigue, but after all was said and done, the games had always proceeded in an orderly and peaceful manner. Many people even believed the myth that all athletes were amateurs competing for the love of the sport.
The Games were held from August 26 – September 11, 1972 in Munich. In the pre-Olympic bidding, Munich had prevailed over Montreal, Madrid and Detroit despite the concern in some quarters over a return to German soil.
Over 7,000 athletes from 121 nations were competing in 21 sports. These were the second Games held in Germany, the other one being the 1936 Olympics in Berlin which had been held in the shadow of Nazism and the threat of war. The West German organizers wanted to show off the “new” Germany – peaceful, democratic and progressive. Accordingly, the motto of the Games was “the cheerful Games,” and the logo was a blue solar logo, christened “the Bright Sun.”
The Games, themselves, featured some landmark results:
- Mark Spitz qualified for seven events in swimming and won seven gold medals, all in world record time. He had also won two in Mexico City in 1968, which had been widely considered a disappointment.
- The US men’s basketball team lost a shocking and controversial final game to the USSR in the last seconds, 51-50. This was the first loss in any Olympics, and was especially painful coming at the height of the Cold War. Moreover, it was in a sport that we had invented and at which we were widely considered to be unbeatable. The fact that due to mass confusion, the referees had mandated that the last seconds be replayed twice added to the devastation, outrage, and intrigue. To this day, the players have not accepted their silver medals.
- Two American track medalists, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, were banned from Olympic competition for life for what US Olympic officials considered unacceptable and disrespectful conduct on the medal stand during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
- The Soviet gymnast, Olga Korbut, captivated viewers with her pixyish style and won two gold medals.
- US wrestler Dan Gable went unbeaten, winning the gold medal without having had a single point scored against him.
All of this was overshadowed, however, by the events of September 5. Eight Palestinian terrorists belonging to a group, aptly name Black September, broke into the Israeli quarters of the Olympic Village. They murdered two Israelis and took seven other athletes, coaches and officials hostage. They held them for 18 hours in the Village. Later, the German authorities agreed to grant them safe passage to the airport, ostensibly to fly out on a hijacked jet. But, a botched rescue attempt resulted in a shootout. The terrorists killed all the hostages, and then three of them were captured with the rest being killed. Later, in a further indignity, the three were set free in exchange for a hijacked jet (although, eventually, the Mossad took its own brand of revenge on two of them).
In the aftermath of this tragedy many wanted to cancel the Games. But, IOC President, Avery Brundage, not exactly known for his sympathy toward Jews or for compassion, in general, insisted that “the Games must go on.” And so, they did after an interruption of one day, but they were forever stained.
The legacy of this act of terrorism is intense security at subsequent Games and the loss of innocence.
1916, 1940 and 1944
These games were forced to be cancelled due to WWI and WWII. Athletes who had been competing against one another in sport met on the battlefield trying to kill eachother.
1980 and 1984
These are notable for boycotts by the two superpowers – the US and the USSR. The US boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow in protest of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. In retaliation, the USSR boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Both Olympics, though watered down, proceeded. Apparently, Brundage was wrong. Politics does have a place in sport.
The games in Atlanta were marred by a terrorist attack. A terrorist set off a bomb in a park near the Olympic stadium, killing two and injuring over 100.
Despite a somewhat rocky history the Games continue to flourish. Thousands of spectators flock to the venues, and millions more watch on tv. So far, this Olympiad, though marred somewhat political and health issues, has proceeded without incident.